Outlines in Scrivener

I am having a terrible time using the numbering and bulleting features in Scrivener. Seems very hard to format my outline. The autoformat way messes up what i am trying to do and I dont end up spending more time formatting the outline tab spacing than even typing. I ended up using another program to work on the outlines and I hate that. i want to use Scrivener for all my writing needs. Any help on how to use the numbering/bulleting more efficiently, or is this simply a limitation to this software?

This is not a limitation of Scrivener, it just takes some getting used to. Maybe tell us a bit about what your doing and we’ll try to put you in the right direction.

By outline, I presume you mean an export of your project showing all titles in their respective hierarchy, without text but maybe with synopses, notes and comments and maybe word count or something. Am I about right?

To get the correct hierarchical numbering for this, you need to look into the ‘formatting’ compile setting tab. This is pretty complicated so look at the manual (§24.11). Basically you need to define the indents and set the numbering for the titles at each level of hierarchical depth. You can also search this forum for ‘title numbering’ or something like that. It’s been discusses loads of times before.

Basically, the way scrivener’s built means you can completely separate your writing from your formatting, and do all the latter in the compile setting window and the structure you give your project in the binder. If you’re manually tabbing out indents, then there are definitely features of the compile settings that you need to familiarise yourself with.

It might be a steep learning curve, but it’s worth it. The amount of time I spend on formatting issues in my thesis is a fraction of what my colleagues spend on theirs using Word.

It might depend on what you are trying to do with your outline and what level of control you need. This link might clarify things:

organizingcreativity.com/201 … -outlines/

I appreciate you taking the time to write. I am seeing this is a whole new world to get used to!

I notice in the article there seems to be a focus on the outline of the documents, files or different parts fo the project. My difficulty is learning how to efficiently write a bulleted or numbered outline in a specific document I am writing in. My biggest area of needing outlining is more in my actual writing. In a particular document I am working on, I will often want to put together a outline for a teaching I am going to do. I work off of these to teach and then I often create written materials (blogs/books) off of the outlines. I use a typical I, II, III, IV, 1, 2, 3, a, b, c - where each subpoint had a different structure. I have previously used word or pages to write these teaching outlines. I want to be able to quick indent, hit return, tyep and put in my information without spending much time formatting. Does this make sense?

The bias you note in the article is coming from the fact that Scrivener is and outliner. Those “files” and “folders” you can create are outline components. That’s one of the things that sets it apart from document based programs that load a file and don’t really organise multiple files into a system (Word’s Master Document feature comes close to that, but it’s a bit of a power feature and not really optimised for rapid thinking). At any rate, these programs, to compensate for that, have rather well developed and intricate text outlining features built into them. So I can see how if you come to Scrivener and are used to that sort of thing being done in a document, would find it’s little bullet and enumeration tool to be a bit lacking. :slight_smile: Really, that tool is just meant for making simple lists in the output text itself, not structuring and organising your work.

For that, you have Scrivener’s overall design philosophy. So what I’m saying is, you could try and use the bullet feature to organise your workflow, it’s not going to do a tenth of what you’d like, I’m sure, but I’d really give the grander idea behind Scrivener a shot before settling on that. Again, just try to think of Scrivener’s Binder (and the Outliner view) as being like the outliner feature in Word. You’re not working in “documents” in Scrivener, you’re working in outlines.

Important to you, I can see, is the fluidity of being able to hammer out your ideas into a structured list. I think you’ll find Scrivener is good for that. Items can be moved about with the keyboard, you can hit the Enter key to make new items, and you can easily hoist sections to focus on an area, or get back to the bigger picture. There is a lot to the “outliner” part of Scrivener, but it may take a while to learn it, especially if you’ve never used a dedicated outliner in the past, like MORE, or the more modern Neo.

I do not need to mess with the structuring of all my files. Just like the person who posted the question to start with, I need to create a traditional outline in text file. I do this because it helps me plan things out and revise things, This process is fluid in nature, not a rigid left-brained thing.

I do not want to monkey with the entire structure of my manuscript. The notion that I have to do this in Word and then paste the silly thing into a Scrivener text document is silly. Scrivener should be able to do this.

If, for example, I am at V., I add some elements within V. (a, b., and c.), and then want to create VI. I cannot for the life of me figure out how to do this very simple thing. With Word, you hit a left or right button to change the hierarchy.

Right brained people do not always think in terms of laying out the sections and then populating them. Sometimes we grow it organically.

All I want to do is follow a “c.” with a VI. This should be very simple.

It is very simple: to go back to the level above for your next point, just press Enter twice.


Scrivener uses the standard Apple Text editor for lists and bullets. You can do what you want, but there are a couple of wrinkles to it.

I’m writing out the steps in full, so you get the whole picture — but in essence the answer is ‘start your list, then use TAB and ENTER and other shortcuts to structure it’…

The basics (I’ll talk about making it quicker at the end – this is the slow ‘mouse method’ which you can make slicker)

a) Start the list off by Format > Lists > I. II. III. (or using the drop down list in the Format Bar).
b) Type your point then press enter to go to the next line – the prefix and indent will remain.
c) When you want to indent to a new level, press enter to start a new line then TAB
d) This will give you the default ‘next indent’ bullet point, probably ‘-’, indented by a tab.
e) To turn it into a), use the Format > Lists > a. b. c. then type your point
f) Carry own with the second level till you’re ready to go back to the first level, then…
g) Press Enter twice. It will automatically create a new item back on the first level (and remember that you want Capital Roman numerals.)

NB: As long as you’re in the same list, then you only have to do steps a) and e) once — from then on you just indent with Tab and outdent with Shift-Tab. Or use Enter-Enter (the latter if you want a new line at the former level. Whatever you do, after that first time, it will ‘remember’ the prefix and indent as long as you stay in the same list. BTW if you press Enter-Enter on the last line of a level 1 item, it will close the list.

Ways of making it slicker…

For step a) and e): I have the major list prefixes on shortcuts so I don’t have to use the mouse.

Secondly, whenever you’re in a list, you can cycle between the prefixes style using cmd-opt-left or right.

Finally, cmd-ctl-left / right change the indent levels in lists and bullets, as alternatives to TAB / Shift-TAB.

You can also make the process quicker by doing the prefix styling at the end, not the beginning. Try this:

a) use the standard Mac shortcut for a bullet point (opt-tab). Don’t bother assigning it to another heading yet.

b) use enter / tab to create your list just using the default bulllet points for as many levels as you want.

c) when you’ve finished, click on any level 1 bullet point and assign a prefix to it (using mouse or either of the shortcuts) — you’ll see every prefix in that level change immediately. Repeat with the other levels.

This method (hammer out the structure first, then change the prefixes afterwards) is the quickest way, IMHO because you can start it off with the simple short cut opt-tab.

I hope this helps.

Wow, thanks, Brookter for that generously detailed how-to. I’m not the OP, but I may use it myself someday. But for me, it’s almost always better to follow Amber’s advice and create a multilevel outline using Scrivener’s Binder. As an inveterate outliner, I remember feeling a little frustration coming from the old AppleWorks word processor, which was much more intuitive than Word or others at the time. I wound up using the free bundled OmniOutliner for years until I made the conceptual leap that in Scrivener, the Binder IS the outline. Viewed this way, you can think of a project as an outliner with notes instead of a manuscript with sections, if you follow me. it’s easy to create new points and sub points and so much more, and it’s maybe Scrivener’s original superpower. But it may require a bit of attitude adjustment if you’re coming from a WP outliner, and Brookter’s method may indeed be preferable in some cases for just envisioning a simple outline instead of structuring a document. I’m just so accustomed to using the Binder that I wind up using the for both purposes.

Thanks for the kind words, Brett.

I don’t think it’s an either-or though. Separate documents are probably overkill in some circumstances (a list with five bullet points with a couple of indents, each a single line — not worth the effort…), but a long list each of which has solid content?

To me, there’s a difference between lists as content (embedded in the document) and lists as structure (outliner — in the Binder), so I use both methods as I feel like it. That’s probably not a rigorous taxonomy but it works.


How wedded are you to numbering the entries in your outline? If you do not need this (or don’t need it automated), then you might consider doing as I do:*

I have simply defined a series of Styles with increasing levels of left indent. I have assigned key commands to each for ready access. So, outlining simply consists of invoking different levels paragraph indent using these styles.**

I think the bullet/numbered list function is not the right tool for what you want. It is simple a convenience aimed at a different and merely typographical purpose. Not the functional resource you are looking for. Styles are the functional resource for within-document outlining.


  • Maybe worth asking yourself how often this persistent labeling of lines is made essential use of.

** Of course these styles could easily be sophisticated so as to have some hanging indent to accomodate maintaining a manually typed numbering, if you are really attached to that.